Launching My Boyfriend into Adulthood

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Reader’s Question

I’m currently in a long distance relationship with a younger man. (I’m 30, he is 24.) I’m in Texas and he is in Pennsylvania. We’ve been dating for a year now and we’ve recently been seriously discussing his moving to Texas. His mother and I have always been close, but she is very controlling. He lives at home, by the way. His parents are very conservative and play everything very safely. She caters to him, makes his bed, does his laundry, buys his toiletries, etc. He is required to text her if he goes out with friends. When he visits me she calls daily to check in. She “helps” him make decisions. She controls his bank account. When I visit him, we have to check with them before we make plans to ensure that they haven’t already made plans for us. It’s like we’re 16.

I love this man dearly and have no doubt that he is my future, and he feels the same way. BUT, I feel that she is standing in the way of his relocating here and our future in general. I could go on, but I think you get the gist. How do I handle this? I would like to have a pleasant relationship with his mother again, but I think at this point she’s just trying to show me who’s really in charge. I don’t want to give up on him. I understand that, to a point, he’s allowing it to happen, but I think the whole “respect your parents” thing has been drilled into his head for so long that he is confusing being his own man with being disrespectful to them. Please help!

Psychologist’s Reply

This sounds like a very frustrating situation for you, as I imagine the discussion of your boyfriend moving miles away has likely only increased the over-parenting behavior in response to the fear of him leaving. Families can operate like thermostats sometimes — they work hard to make adjustments (and not always healthy or functional ones) to maintain the temperature setting that feels most comfortable to them. For your boyfriend’s family, it seems as though they are all (your boyfriend included) most comfortable with a setting that is no longer age-appropriate or functional for him to “launch” into adulthood. One of the most difficult tasks families have to navigate is shifting from center-seeking to center-leaving as children mature. Your boyfriend’s family seems stuck in the center-seeking place. When families are stuck, one member must change his behavior if he wants others to change theirs. Whether or not your boyfriend is willing to take the risks to shake up the system seems to be an unanswered question. Another question to consider is whether or not you are willing to enter into a relationship in which you assume his mother’s role.

Let’s imagine that your boyfriend is able to find a way to move out of his house, and immediately moves to Texas to be with you. There are a few questions for the two of you to consider and discuss before making this move. For example, would he establish his own residence and bank account, and secure a job? Or, would he expect you to take care of these for him? Is he able to work, balance his checkbook, shop for his own needs, and cook and clean for himself? Has he ever had the opportunity to practice any of these life skills apart from his parents? Does he expect you to help him in the same way his mother has been caring for him? How would it be for you assuming these responsibilities for him?

If you and he decide that this move is beneficial for both of you, and he wants to take the leap and move to Texas, it may not be realistic to have a “pleasant relationship” with his family. Sometimes in family systems that have difficulty navigating changes, they find an outsider to “scapegoat.” They may blame you for taking him away from them, and may “cut off” contact with you and possibly with him. Alternately, they may work harder to keep him nearby and may try to undermine his relationship with you.

Given the polarity of this family situation, it may be best to include a third, neutral system that could play the “outsider” or “triangulated” role that could perhaps diminish the negative consequences that you or he might otherwise encounter. I suggest finding a licensed family therapist (or a licensed psychologist who specializes in family therapy) to help all of you sort through these changes, and find a more effective way to navigate the anxiety that his leaving may precipitate. In the meantime, you may find some support in a book by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.: The Dance of Connection [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

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